Scott Z. Burns proved far too prescient for comfort when he wrote Contagion — the 2011 pandemic thriller that became one of the most streamed movies in the early weeks of the real-life COVID-19 lockdowns nine years later.
It’s scary, then, to think how accurate his crystal ball could be with Extrapolations, the new star-studded Apple TV+ anthology series that takes a highly-plausible (and according to Burns and collaborators, very scientific) look at what the near future could look like with the worsening global effects of climate change.
The projects do share some of the same DNA, Burns tells us during a recent virtual press day.
“I think the process that we explored as writers and creators is very similar,” says Burns, who was also a producer on the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth featuring former vice president Al Gore. “We started with the science. We talked to experts. We asked them what could happen. Obviously with the pandemic, there had been those in the past. And so everyone who we spoke with said it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’
“I think with tackling the future, and climate change, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ because you’re seeing climate change every day right now, in fires, in storms, in extreme heat. So it’s not a matter of ‘if.’ But to us, it was a matter of ‘what.’ What are we going to tolerate, and what are we going to stand up and fight? And that’s really both the similarities and the differences in the process for us.”
Starting in 2037 and running through 2070 over eight episodes, Extrapolations imagines a world where wildfires swallow up large swaths of the globe, rising sea levels sink Miami buildings and elephants and whales are all but extinct.
The subject matter caught Hollywood’s attention. The cast list reads like an awards ceremony: Meryl Streep, Edwards Norton, Sienna Miller, Kit Harington, Diane Lane, Tobey Maguire, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Rhys, Heather Graham, Gemma Chan, David Schwimmer, Keri Russell, Daveed Diggs and more.
“The leaps that Scott’s making aren’t actually leaps, this is the trajectory we’re going on,” says Diggs (Hamilton, Blindspotting), who plays a Florida rabbi whose temple is in jeopardy of flooding. “Not that we have to, but we are. We also could not. But that’s gonna have to be active. We’re not gonna be able to sit here and have it not happen.
“What I think is so great about Scott’s mission here is providing us with as much information as he can give us over the course of the show, but also hopefully inspiring us to be a little more active in how we think about climate change and then going out and finding the resources on our own to be more effective in fighting it.”
Diggs’s castmates agree: We’re well past the point of cautionary tales. Extrapolations is a call to action.
“It’s a crucial time for something like this to be made,” says Michael Gandolfini (The Many Saints of Newark). “Scott has a real ability to educate in a way that is not preachy but informative and kind and also grounded in humanity… You’ll want to say, ‘What can I do?’ I can be a part of protests or marches, I can have my reusable water bottle, I can educate myself.”
“These aren’t predictions anymore,” says Rhys. “It’s all happening now. We’re seeing it in real time… We’re seeing the beginnings of everything portrayed in this show right now.”
Lane has already done the protest part. The Unfaithful actress was arrested in 2019 during a climate change protest in Washington, D.C.
“I was willing to get arrested, protesting,” she says. “You wanna know what zip code you’re doing that in. And I wouldn’t do it outside of the United States… But being active helps with depression [about climate change]. And I think this show shows that we’re gonna be proactive and we’re not gonna go down without a fight. Whether that means fighting our own selves or fighting our own nature.”
The cast also stresses the show’s clear entertainment value, not just educational or social value.
“I think when you personalize things and make it visceral, it can make a difference,” says Graham. “As an actor, you want to entertain people, too.”
“It’s frightening, but it’s real,” says Indira Varma (Luther, Game of Thrones). “Often you hear about climate change and what’s happening, what it’s doing. And it can feel meaningless, unless you’re living it. But hopefully when we tell stories we can reach more people, because it’s about how we feel.”
“Images stay, stories stay,” agrees Tahar Rahim (The Mauritanian). “Movies and TV series have a special power.”
Says Burns, 60: “I grew up during a time where there were all these films that really built context around the Vietnam War, and that was sort of the big story of America in that moment. Whether it was Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter or Killing Fields, or Born on the 4th of July. All of these movies helped me understand, as a kid, what just happened.
“Well, this is what’s happening now. This is the biggest existential story of our time. And I do believe that, as a writer, and I think our fellow collaborators on this felt the same way, that this was an opportunity to help give context to that. And I think it is through providing people with context that you allow them to go and find their own path to action.”
Extrapolations is now streaming on Apple TV+.